Photographer Penny Stephens

Penny Stephens, Photojournalist. Photo Nikita Helm.
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"Working for a newspaper you really feel like you have the keys to the city. You would do a job where you get to see the city from a perspective nobody ever gets to see." Photographer Penny Stephens speaks to Nikita Helm.

How did you become a photo journalist?  

It took me a little while to get into the field after doing a diploma in photography, as there are never any jobs. I worked as a wedding photographer, in Geelong and then realised after about six to eight months that I would have to come back to Melbourne as this was where the work was.

I did black and white printing in a little studio for a while and from there it happened really, really fast. As soon as I had something published, The Age took me more seriously and I started working with them to cover the community footy over the weekends. After about a year of doing this I then got offered a full-time job!

What made you decide to work in this section of the industry?

I found a book in our family bookcase full of 1950s photojournalism from British newspapers. It was filled with crazy moments of history and people’s lives. It made me imagine how it would have felt witnessing something like that and the ability to be a part of something big. I think this planted the seed and made me think that working for newspapers would be a pretty exciting way of life.

What are some of the most interesting things you have covered?

Working for a newspaper you really feel like you have the keys to the city. You would do a job where you get to see the city from a perspective nobody ever gets to see. You find yourself on top of the Eureka Tower or in the ballroom of Flinders street station!

I went to Afghanistan which was most likely the most surprising thing I have done. I use to say I didn’t want to go to war but then I got asked to go to Afghanistan with The Age and I said yes! It was when they were doing the embeds with the Australian Army and my kids were quite little. I cried for a whole week because I thought I was being a really bad mum and the trauma I could leave them with. It was tough to make a decision but my husband was incredibly supportive and it all ran smoothly.

“Working for a newspaper you really feel like you have the keys to the city”

Penny Stephens

But honestly, I think just being able to go into ordinary people’s homes because I worked for a newspaper was incredible. To spend a little bit of time with them and try to make a portrait of that moment is a real honour. They share the most incredible things and I just find that really inspiring.

What have been certain challenges you have had to overcome?

I don’t know if I would’ve said this while I was working at The Age but (journalism) is  a very, very competitive environment and I think it’s hard not to compare yourself to others in the same role. You have to have your own sort of authorship and ownership of things.

There was a real pecking order as well, with one person getting the really amazing job every day, another person getting the OK job and whole lot of people who get the bad jobs. It was really hard to not let this effect you.

How do you process a story through images?

I think the best thing to do is to get to the country or space and file the story that the job is for and then find other stories through being in the place.

When I was in the Solomon Islands with World Vision, I had to shoot all of the shots within the 48 hours we were there, using nice light regardless. If the journalist doesn’t have a specific shot for you to shoot, you simply take thousands of images in the period of time  you are there as this is the only opportunity you get. Incorporation into the story can be found later.

As the job can prove stressful at times, do you have any tips to overcome this?  

I would say you would have to be careful and aware of vicarious trauma and the stress from this. I would go on a news trip where little kids had died and, because I had little boys at the time, I would say to myself this wouldn’t of happened to me because I didn’t have that type of gas heater or that sort of appliance, trying to separate myself from it all. But this wasn’t a good idea because you are putting yourself into the shoes of that person, and with the more empathy you have, the more likely you are to suffer from vicarious trauma. Separating from the trauma is the best way to not be effected by the situation.